Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 4
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1. Preface

2. Spinoza's World, 1664

3. The Sabbateans

4. The Disputation

5. The Holy Land

6. Marriage

7. Common Prayer

8. America

9. Gottfried and Sophia

10. The Sublime Porte

11. Spinoza's World, 1691

12. Mustafa and the Janissaries

13. Naomi

14. Regime Change

15. Tulips

16. Twilight

17. Spinoza's World, 1712

18. Epilogue


Spinoza in Turkey
"[I]f we find anything in [the Scriptures] contrary to the laws of Reason we should refute that with the same freedom that we refute such statements in the Koran or the Talmud."
-- Spinoza, Metaphysical Thoughts, 2:8

Part 4 - The Disputation

April to October 1667

Rabbi Jacob Zemah arrived in Constantinople on the last day of March 1667. The rabbi was old and in poor health, and his Constantinople colleagues had feared that he might not be able to come; they had sent a summons to the great sage Avraham Amigo to attend the disputation if Zemah could not. But he was there, hale if somewhat worn from the journey, and he arrived to a warm greeting from the Chief Rabbi and his entourage.

The selection of Zemah was a tactical maneuver on the part of the rabbinate. Although Zemah did not have Rabbi Amigo's reputation as a judge, he was still one of the great commentators of his time. He was, specifically, a cabalist, whose writings on the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria would lay the groundwork for the later Shulhan Arukh ha-Ari. [FN1]

A cabalist might seem a risky choice in the aftermath of Sabbatai Zevi's apostasy, but the risk was a calculated one. Zemah, who had been among the four Jerusalem rabbis to declare Zevi herem, was one of the few scholars who had stood as strongly against Zevi as had Spinoza himself. He was also that most practical of men, a medical doctor, and had a keen logical mind. If Spinoza chose to go on the offensive by attacking the Kabbalah itself, Zemah was the one who could answer him.

Both Spinoza's party and the rabbis' passed the time before the disputation as if nothing untoward was happening. The sole break in the routine was Zemah's attendance at several of Spinoza's lectures and prayer services, in order to gain an appreciation of the man he would debate. The first time he attended, several of Spinoza's more hotheaded followers attempted to remove him from the hall, but Spinoza ordered them to let him stay.

Afterward, the onlookers asked Zemah his impression. His answer was cryptic: "reason is one way to achieve the mitzvot. After all, the Kabbalah is just another form of reason."

Further explanation of this statement, if there was to be any, was left for the day of the disputation. That day - April 11, 1667 - dawned warm and clear. The debate had been slated to be held at the Ahrida synagogue, but it soon became obvious that the crowd of onlookers - not all Jewish by any means - would be too big even for that great sanctuary. Thus, by general agreement, the disputants moved to a nearby park in Eyp. Two high tables were carried out to the park, and a chair placed on each; Spinoza sat on one, and Zemah on the other. In the lore of Constantinople and of Jews worldwide, the debate would be known ever after as the "Day of the Tables."

By the rules agreed upon in advance, Spinoza as the challenged party had a quarter of an hour to expound his theology, after which he and Zemah would be free to argue. He spent this time in a brief explanation of the philosophies he had developed through years of thought. Although there was barely time to scratch the surface, he managed to touch on the basic points: that God was first cause and universal substance but without free will, that every person had the capacity and desire to control his passions and live a moral life, that God and the universe were knowable to humans and could be discerned through rational processes. [FN2]

The dispute that followed lasted the entire day, and was remembered by all who attended as a duel between two brilliant minds. Almost from the beginning, it was clear that Zemah had mastered Spinoza's philosophy and was ready to meet him on his own ground. Early in the argument, for instance, he challenged Spinoza's assertion that there was nothing in Scripture contrary to human reason. Pointing out that Spinoza had described God as a being without free will, Zemah asked how he could believe that and still believe that the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai was not contrary to reason. If the Scriptures were true, as Spinoza claimed to assert, then were they not proof that God was an active agent with free will?

For a moment, Spinoza sat in silence absorbing this argument, and some in the rabbinical party actually began to hope they had won. Spinoza, however, was not one to give in so easily. He had not been stymied; he simply needed time to consider his response - and his answer, when he gave it, would become one of the foundations of Rational Jewish theology.

The Scriptures, explained Spinoza, were divinely inspired, but they were written by men, and their language reflects the imperfect understanding of men rather than the true nature of God. Although Moses may have believed that the commandments were "given" to him by God, they in fact came from his intuitive understanding of God's nature. His knowledge of God had focused his reason and enabled him to discern the laws that would lead humans to live morally. Thus, even though the Torah was not divinely authored, it still stood as a testament to the greatness of God and the prophets. How marvelous were the men who could discern the mind of God, and how marvelous the God who had imbued them with the power of discernment!

As proof of this assertion, Spinoza argued that every commandment in the Torah could be discerned through logic and reason. The prohibitions against pork and shellfish were sound, because these were unhealthy foods. Daily prayer focused and disciplined the mind. A woman's period of niddah [FN3] prevented disease, stopped the flow of unhealthy humors, and constantly renewed her husband's desire for her. And the sweet Sabbath was the most logical mitzvah of all, because rest and contemplation were as vital to human survival as the products of work.

In answer to another of Zemah's questions, Spinoza contended that the stories of the prophets should be read for their moral truth rather than their literal truth. The miracles of the prophets - which Zemah cited as additional proof of God's role as an active agent - did not in fact happen, but were valuable nevertheless for the lessons that could be learned from them. The prophets, like Moses, had an intuitive understanding of God, and reasoned analysis of their works would reveal divine truths. [FN4]

The disputation went on in this vein for the rest of the day, and ended with both sides believing they had won. Each party evaluated the proof by a different standard; Spinoza's followers believed that their champion's logical reasoning had bested Zemah. In fact, Spinoza's secretary Haham Saltiel would later publish an account of the proceedings under the title The Triumph of Reason. On the other hand, the rabbinate argued that Zemah had shown Spinoza's positions to be scripturally unsound; to them, Spinoza's theory of prophecy sounded less like a logical outgrowth of his philosophy than a desperate gambit.

As time passed, however, it became clear that Spinoza's followers were not deserting him; indeed, influential Muslims from the Sultan's court had been seen attending his lectures in the wake of the debate. Amid recriminations from the Chief Rabbi, who had warned all along that drastic measures would be necessary, it was decided that a rabbinical court would be convened. Spinoza's denial of the divine authorship of the Scriptures during the debate was more than enough evidence to declare him heretical, and it was now clear that such a measure was necessary to protect the Jewish community from him.

A summons was issued to Spinoza six weeks after the debate. His response was to ignore it. Such a response went against the grain, but his chief advisors, particularly Saltiel, had warned him that the court's verdict was a foregone conclusion and that an answer to the summons would be taken as an acknowledgment of its authority to excommunicate him. Thus, although an advocate was appointed to argue Spinoza's case before the court, the trial took place without him.

The verdict of the din Torah was declared on August 12, 1667, four months and one day after the disputation. To nobody's surprise, the assembled rabbinate declared Spinoza herem and forbade the Jewish community to read his books or interact with his followers. The surprising thing was that several rabbis dissented, and that Zemah was one of them. In the months since debating Spinoza, the old cabalist had been attracted by his idea of God as the universal substance, and believed that his methods were less important than the place where they led. In fact, the day after the court issued its judgment, Zemah became a guest in Spinoza's house, where he passed many hours in conversation with the philosopher in the two months remaining before his death.

From that day forward, it was no longer possible to speak of the dispute between Spinoza and the rabbinate, because Spinoza was himself a rabbi and counted others among his students. Moreover, despite the established rabbis' attempts to enforce the court's decree, the excommunication of Spinoza soon proved ineffectual. Those Jews who observed the ban might avoid attending Spinoza's lectures or reading his books, but his followers included members of the great merchant families of Constantinople, so it was nearly impossible to avoid business and social contact with them. Inevitably, casual conversation led to ideas spreading across the divide, and the theology of Spinoza - who, despite the ban, was still admired for his resistance to Zevi - were discussed in meeting halls throughout the city.

In the meantime, Spinoza had closeted himself in his study during his free hours and begun to write. The product, which would be finished four years later, would be a treatise inspired by the disputation and by his conversations with Zemah. This treatise, widely regarded as one of his masterworks, would be called On Religion.

[FN1] Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest cabalists in the history of Judaism, was known as "ha-Ari" or "the Lion" to his followers.

[FN2] Spinoza's theology as described herein is drawn mostly from the Ethics and Metaphysical Thoughts of OTL, with a few glosses by the author.

[FN3] The period of menstruation and seven days thereafter, during which a married couple is forbidden sexual relations.

[FN4] The arguments made in the debate are extrapolated from chapters 1 and 2 of the Theological and Political Treatise.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:15 GMT 2002